Listening to coach Steve Clifford Monday night, it sounds like the Charlotte Hornets haven’t just lost a bunch of games.
They’ve lost their identity.
In Clifford’s three-plus seasons as this team’s coach, you could count on two things: They made the most of what talent they had and they improved throughout each season.
Not this season. They have lost 10 of their last 11 games, and it’s about more than just growing losses. They’ve stopped living up to their reputation.
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“If you ask other teams (about the Hornets), you’ll hear, ‘they don’t beat themselves’ and ‘they’re hard to play against.’ We’re not hard to play against. Just not,” Clifford said after Monday’s home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
“That speaks to me getting them to understand that you have to change. You can’t be the same person every year. If the challenge changes, you have to change. My job is to get them to understand that, and I haven’t so far.
“We still have time, but it’s getting late.”
The Hornets play at Toronto Wednesday night, the first of seven road games broken up by a seven-day All-Star Game break.
This team needs that break. They look tired, listless and beaten. They are not out of the playoff race at 24-31, but that says more about the mediocrity in the Eastern Conference than it does the Hornets’ prospects.
Yes, these guys need a long weekend at some Caribbean beach. But at the end of that holiday, they need to take a hard look at what they are and what they are not.
They are skilled and smart. But they are soft. Their lack of physicality is well documented, and the 76ers out-rebounding them Monday 51-33 – without centers Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor – spoke to just how profound this problem is.
It doesn’t help that centers Cody Zeller and Miles Plumlee are both hurt, but I’m not sure how to measure the impact of that absence. The Roy Hibbert experiment failed (not for a lack of effort, but for Hibbert’s body wearing out).
Kemba Walker is a deserving All-Star and Nic Batum has intermittent big games. But Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist aren’t playing up to their potential. Without naming names, Clifford said as much in various ways in his postgame remarks Monday.
“We don’t have a lot of guys who are having really good years,” Clifford said.
“If you look back on our three years here, every year most guys played well. We’ve been good at getting guys to play to their max, and we haven’t been close to that.”
Then Clifford added this:
“This isn’t a three-week thing here. This has been 27 or 28 games (of poor play) now. We were good for like 23 games, and really played off the cushion of (starting) 6-1. We haven’t gotten better and that starts with me. It’s about the head coach and the best players.
“I’ve got to take most of the responsibility, but accountability – player-to-player – in this league is a tough thing.”
The players talk frequently about how much they enjoy playing for Clifford. They appreciate his transparency and fairness.
But those are just words. The NBA is about actions and winning. Not much going right in that regard lately.